Universities and innovation for inclusive development

Universities in Southern Africa would have opportunities to reduce social and economic exclusion if they improved engagement with marginalised communities as a means to promote innovation for inclusive development.

Vice-chancellors from 24 universities across Southern Africa were introduced to innovation for inclusive development as a tool to strengthen economies, knowledge creation and fair benefits for marginalised communities, at a first leadership dialogue for 2015 held in Stellenbosch near Cape Town in South Africa from 8-9 June.

The dialogue was hosted by the Southern African Regional Universities Association, SARUA, and was supported by South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, or HSRC, and Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

Piyushi Kotecha, chief executive officer of SARUA, said the leadership dialogue – on “Innovation for Inclusive Development: What is the role for Southern African universities?” – was crucial in supporting efforts to revitalise and grow higher education in Africa.

The dialogue’s aim was to promote an innovation for inclusive development approach, as one initiative to frame universities’ engagement through teaching, research and innovation with external partners.

Linking innovation to inclusive development

Kotecha said that if applied innovation was to succeed, universities had to work more closely with marginalised communities.

The increasing responsiveness of universities to such communities was also strategic for research managers to strengthen the long-term sustainability of institutions.

“For many years researchers have focused on how science and technology have boosted the economy, but this has not led to inclusive development,” said Dr Michael Gastrow, a senior research specialist in the education and skills development research programme of the HSRC.

“It has been through the study we carried out on linkages between marginalised communities and universities that we saw the challenges that universities face and how the marginalised are not properly represented or are ignored,” Gastrow told University World News.

He said the researchers had looked for livelihood problems being addressed, the actors involved and the drivers of the interaction.

Foreseeable problems

Luci Abrahams, director of the Learning, Information, Networking, Knowledge, or LINK, centre at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, said the big challenge for universities in Southern Africa would be to identify what innovation is and why it should be done.

Abrahams said there was a need for wider understanding of innovation for inclusive development.

“It is little known and poorly understood. Lack of explicit knowledge about it has created two problematic outcomes. If not explicit we don’t understand it; if we cannot replicate, it cannot form part of the value chain of increasing information value,” she said.

Innovation for inclusive development was not seen as a ‘valuable’ form of knowledge creation, therefore there appeared to be no reason for academics to spend time on it.

On the other hand, said Abrahams, industry innovation was slowly being recognised, possibly because of an actual or potential flow of funds that is encouraged by leadership and management structures.

“We are caught in an environment where universities need money and will encourage their researchers to pursue certain kinds of research – but in the process may undermine very important forms of research for development.”

Abrahams said that as universities figured they might want to pursue innovation for inclusive development, some disciplines leaned more easily to the area – such as infrastructure engineering and management.

Knowledge power relations between universities and marginalised communities should be examined to ensure that they are equal, she added.

Professor Nelson Ijumba, deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Rwanda, said another problem was that community engagement had not been recognised for assessments or promotions, so academics tend to regarded it as low key.

Dr Watu Wamae, a visiting research fellow at the African Centre for Technology Studies in Kenya and of the economics department at the Open University, UK, said one on the main challenges was the reliance on relationships – relationships between people and how they organise themselves in the delivery of new technologies and products.

Wamea said trust lay at the heart of such relationships and depended on shared ethical standards to systematise processes in ways that society accepted them as legitimate.